The history of Hawaii as an independent nation spans less than a century, from King Kamehameha I’s conquest of the last island resisting him in 1810 to its annexation by the United States in 1898. It was a fraught period that offers a fascinating case study of an indigenous culture grappling with Westernization, modernization, and imperialism. In his new book, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, James L. Haley explores it with commendable nuance and respect for native Hawaiians as active agents in the shaping of their country’s destiny.
The elite ali’i class, that is. The kanaka (common people) had no formal rights before 1839, and the minimal political voice granted them in Kamehameha III’s Constitution of 1840 was taken away by Kamehameha V in 1864. Without reverting to the patronizing early 20th-century narrative of Western colonists bringing civilization to benighted savages, Haley avoids the equally schematic version that depicts bigoted missionaries and predatory capitalists destroying an idyllic world in which love was free and land was held in common.
In pre-contact Hawaii, he reminds us, all land belonged to the king. The kanaka, kept in their place by an elaborate religious system of taboos called kapu, handed over the majority of products they harvested from this land to the chiefs who held it as royal vassals. Traditional Hawaiian society was brutally hierarchical; it practiced human sacrifice as a means of gaining power from defeated enemies and punishing kapu violators. “There were no good old days,” Haley asserts.
It’s true that sexual mores were relaxed, giving women—particularly elite women—more freedom and authority than they had in Western society. Indeed, the major break with tradition that fundamentally shaped modern Hawaii was fomented by two queens: Kamehameha I’s favorite wife, Ka’ahumanu, and the mother of his heir, Keopuolani, who together destroyed the kapu system following the Conqueror’s death in 1819.
Their motives remain unclear, but these shrewd women probably saw that four decades of contact with foreigners, who repeatedly broke kapus and were not punished by the gods, had made at least some Hawaiians question the system’s elaborate restrictions and savage punishments. One of these was a teenager named Opukaha’ia, who begged passage on an American trading ship after seeing his aunt thrown from a cliff for violating a kapu. Converted to Christianity in America, he galvanized the Congregationalist Church to send the first of 12 missions to Hawaii in 1819.
The missionaries stepped into a spiritual vacuum. While many Hawaiians still secretly worshipped the old gods, kapu was dead as a public pillar of the social structure. The queens who killed it were instrumental in assisting Christianity’s spread in its place. Keopuolani converted on her deathbed in 1823, instructing her son Kamehameha II to protect the missionaries. Ka’ahumanu, his virtual co-ruler, ensured that he obeyed her wishes. Haley treats the missionaries more kindly than many contemporary historians, praising their contributions in creating a written Hawaiian language and promoting widespread literacy through their schools (which of course also promoted Christianity).
Throughout the 1830s and ‘40s, when trade with whaling ships anchored Hawaii’s business with the West, neither American missionaries nor their compatriots in the fledgling sugar industry seemed a particular threat to Hawaiian sovereignty. Of far more concern to Kamehameha III, who ruled 1824-54, was the bullying of the British and the French, who on several occasions backed up outrageous diplomatic and commercial demands with gunboats in Honolulu Harbor.
American-style capitalism began to make disastrous inroads on Hawaiian autonomy after the passage in 1850 of the Kuleana Act, which gave the kanaka ownership of land they had tended for generations, and the Alien Land Ownership Act, which allowed foreigners to buy it from them. This unfortunate conjunction, Haley writes, “had the net effect of evicting thousands of native Hawaiians from the countryside and leaving them worse off than they were before.” Concurrently, the whaling industry went into terminal decline, and sugar plantations came to dominate the Hawaiian landscape and economy.
Haley focuses on the response of native Hawaiians to these dramatic changes, rather than on the white businessmen (often the scions of missionaries) who instigated them. He shows a succession of kings attempting to mitigate American influence: Kamehameha IV cultivated closer ties with England; Kamehameha V re-asserted royal authority; David Kalakaua, founder of the kingdom’s final dynasty, encouraged the revival of traditional Hawaiian culture.
None could arrest the growth of white power or the decline of the native population, which by 1890 was one-tenth of its pre-contact level and for the first time outnumbered by immigrants and island-born non-natives. Haley makes it clear that the ali’is’ profligate ways played a role in Hawaii’s inability to resist American hegemony, from the chiefs who stripped the islands of sandalwood to fund their craze for Western clothing and furniture to David Kalakaua, whose shady way with government finances enabled his white opponents to force on him an 1887 constitution drastically limiting his authority—though its nickname, “the Bayonet Constitution,” indicates their principal means of persuasion.
The penultimate blow came when his successor, Queen Lili’uokalani, was deposed in an 1893 coup led by members of the Annexation Club (its aim evident from its name) and supported by U.S. minister John L. Stevens, who called in the Marines from a ship anchored in Honolulu Harbor. Haley’s account of this familiar, shameful story stresses the active role of Lili’uokalani, who nearly persuaded the new Grover Cleveland administration to disown the coup. In a regrettable moment of ali’i ii imperiousness, however, she refused to promise amnesty for the rebels. Haley dismisses as racist fear-mongering the rumor that Lili’uokalani threatened to behead them, but her failure to compromise made a bad impression in Washington and gave the rebels confidence that President Cleveland’s “request” that they restore the queen would not be backed up with troops.
The U.S. government was too embarrassed by this sordid affair to proceed with annexation in 1893, but Congress finally enacted it in the more imperialist political climate of 1898. While Haley is probably correct that “Hawaii was too weak to exist indefinitely as an independent nation,” his statement does sound a bit like justification. He will also no doubt offend idealizers of indigenous culture with his warts-and-all portrait of pre-contact Hawaiian society and of subsequent maneuvers by the ali’i to maintain their status and power amid the changes wrought by Western religion and economic development.
Open-minded readers, however, will appreciate Haley’s full-bodied narrative for the way it captures a past inhabited by actual men and women: flawed and inconsistent, products of their culture and their upbringing who brought their individual personalities to bear on the making of history. As he did in Wolf, his excellent biography of Jack London, Haley frankly depicts complicated human beings and messy social realities without tidying them up.